Interview with Marc Dusseiller from Hackteria.org, part 1: On DIYbio and nanotechnology

by deborah on 06/1/2011

In April I went to Ljubljana for a one-day workshop ‘Du du kuglica sajica mavrica‘ led by  Boštjan Leskovšek, Bengt Sjölén, and Marc Dusseiler from Hackteria.org. It was a continuation of 10 days NanoŠmano series of workshops and events (initiated by  Stefan Doepner/f18institut and Marc Dusseiller/hackteria) dedicated to DIYbio and nanotechnology, or as more precisely Stefan Doepner pointed out: ‘The project started new explorations into the world of matter on the nanoscale by investigating its physical and aesthetic potentials. As an collaborative and open research based workshop by artists, hackers and scientists, we want to elicit methods to enable the creative use of nano materials in critical and playful artistic process.’

The authors of the concept are: STEFAN DOEPNER – MARC DUSSEILLER – BOSTJAN LESKOVSEK – BENGT SJOELEN – ERIK REIMHULT

You know, I’m very often on workshops: DIY, software or hardware based stuff, interactivity, wearables; but after Hackteria’s workshop I really had a feeling that I pushed my understanding on DIY cultures strongly, strongly forward. Priceless…

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Photo&Logos: Hackteria.org (cc)

Therefore, few dayz ago I interviewed via Skype lucid scientist and DIYbio hacker Marc Dusseiller from Switzerland, one of the founders of Hackteria.org.

Marc R. Dusseiller is a transdisciplinary scholar, lecturer for micro- and nanotechnology, cultural facilitator and artist. He works in an integral way to combine science, art and education. He performs DIY-workshops in lo-fi electronics, music and robotics, has made various short movies and is currently developing means to perform biological science (Hackteria | Open Source Biological Art) in a DIY fashion in your kitchen or your atelier.

He is also co-organizing Dock18, Room for Mediacultures, and various other engagments like the diy* festival, national and international workshops for both artists and schools and children as the president of the Swiss Mechatronic Art Society, SGMK. (official bio)

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Marc Dusseiller, photo taken from playaround.cc

Marc, how did you get involved in the DIY field considering the fact that you are a scientist by profession?

MD: In fact, I only started doing DIY and hacking after my PhD, which is sad, when I look back now. I was always into music, first guitar and punk rock, jazz, etc. But later I got more interested in electronic and experimental music. Starting with some software, but wasn’t very satisfied, too many options to get lost into…

And I ended up playing with feedback, and other noise sources such as licking a plug. From there, in fact through a workshop about circuit bending by Nic Collins in 2006, I started with hands-on electronics: hardware hacking etc., and for me it was really mind expanding. Because that’s exactly what I didn’t learn as a scientist/engineer/PhD.

Video produced by Migros Kulturprozent and Christoph Merian Verlag for the DVD publication “Digital Culture and Media Art from Switzerland – Edition 2010

I see, it’s all about practice and making thingz with a concrete result.

MD: Yeah! Hands-on and the guts to do things the wrong way. Its not making things with a concrete goal in your mind. Explorations into the unknown, but then rethink and know what you’re doing and do it again, share the experience and play with things.

So, what are currently working on? Are you still a scientist in a lab?

MD: Uuuh…many things… In fact, I do a lot of teaching, organizing events and going to festivals doing workshops. At this very moment I am in the woods nearby Schaffhausen (Switzerland) taking care of a piece of forest I inherited. But my main experimental work is on developing simple tools for artists and hackers to enable them to work on topics of biotechnology by themselves.

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Kresse Shield by Hackteria.org (cc)

I am not doing scientific research at the moment. I do work a lot with artists and do experimentation on simplified and accessible tools for both, working with them and educational purposes. My research interests are generally at the interface between artificial systems (technology) and living systems. I teach various subjects of nanotechnology for life sciences.

I developed methods to modify webcams into useful microscopes and currently I am investigating concepts of microfluidics for lab-on-a-chip applications both for educational purposes and also for cheap diagnostics in developing countries. And I am happy to have started the collaboration with Julian Togar Abraham from HONF, where I got my first experiences in really doing stuff locally in Indonesia.

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BitBadge by Marc Dusseiller (cc) made during Cellsbutton#04
Photo taken form flickr

Tell me about the Indonesia and what you did there?

MD: In the framework of the Hackteria project I went first to India to collaborate with my partner Yashas Shetty (Bangalore) building microscopes, setting up the webpage for the project and other discussions. From there I went to visit the House of Natural Fiber in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) to participate the Cellsbutton#03 Festival.

Equipped with a set of electronics simple components and ideas, a few webcams and a laptop, I arrived first time there at HONF. Now really knowing what to expect. I did workshops in DIY electronics, doing little noise toys and other playful experiments. I also continued and presented the work on DIY microscopy. It was loads of fun.

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The hacked optical microscope, indonesian style
Photo: DIY Generic Digital Microscop by Marc Dusseiller, Nur Akbar Arofatullah (cc)
Photo taken from F-book

Anyway, the ability to use modified webcams to explore the living microcosm is fun, interesting and quite absorbing… You can use software to use the video data for visuals, worm2sound interfaces and other ideas. And I found a local community, Togar included, that collaborated with me in these ideas.

On the other hand, we were also presenting and collaborating with local universities, with scientists in microbiology and related fields. And after a short presentation to the professors, they, with great enthusiasm, invited us to do the DIY microscopy workshop with looooaads of students. So, we ended up doing the workshop together and for me this was a great experience.

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Hackteria in Colombia
Photo by hackteria.org (cc)

What did you learn from these experiences? What differences did you notice between the continents?

MD: After my earlier explorations in how to use the hacked webcams for teaching and artistic purposes, doing the workshop in UGM (the local university), I saw that, although they do have a few nice microscopes available for their research, they have very limited resources for teaching undergrad student in microbiology.

That means they have a few old setups, optical microscopes, but no digital ones available and in my opinion for young students in biology or related fields, it is really important to spend hours on microscopes, being able to save images digitally and empowering them to even use them in their free time. Access to laptops or other computers is not such a big issue. But the knowledge of how to hack the optics of a webcam is lacking. Both in Indonesia and in Switzerland.

How would you practically solve the gap between poverty countries, considering DIY bio labs?

MD: I think there is a key issue here, about the whole DIY movement and especially in biology. On one hand the hacking and DIY approach is a political statement and specials artistic aesthetics of individuals in rich and developed countries. It’s in quite a different context in other areas of the world. I could quote a statement by Yashas: ‘Why should artists/designers/outsiders get involved with Synth-Bio (in particular) and Sci-Tech (in General)’

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Yashas Shetty, photo by James King (c)
Taken from flickr

“There is the obvious reasons that all outsiders bring in unique perspectives to any form of thinking – the artist/hacker has the courage to ask “stupid questions” which may not turn out to be stupid at all. The other is that the hacker/artist/designer may also come from spaces in which the technology is as important as the different contexts that it exists in -cultural/social/political and a scientist (at least the way in which most of them are trained) may not be aware of or not be interested in.”

Yashas Shetty

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From hackteria workshop (Marc Dusseiller, Spela Petric) during
HAIP Festival in Ljubljana, 2010; Photo by Marc Dusseiller (cc)

So, tell me a little bit how the whole thing with hackteria has started? Did you know each other before?

MD: As I already mentioned before, personally I got involved in DIY, electronics, music and robotics in 2006, when joining the just founded Swiss Mechatronic art society having just finished PhD and no clue what to do with it i got more and more involved in collaboration with artists, running and organising workshops.

Also working with social institutions with children at the same time I developed new lab courses for my teachings in nanotechnology, having no money available. It’s a local polytechnic school and anyway… 50 students are a lot, i dug out some old ideas on building simple microscopes with that back of recent experiences I joined a project in Media Lab Prado interactivos?09 in February 2009 in Madrid.

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Deep Data (extract) by Andy Gracie (cc)

There was a call for collaboration on the topic of “garage science” and one of the projects, led by Andy Gracie, a British artist based in Spain was about exploring the artistic possibilities of astrobiology working with microorganisms, such as tardigrades and nematodes, which are widely used in space research as well… So, that sounded interesting… and i joined.

The interactivos concept is very interesting, it’s very much founded on concepts of collaboration and sharing and also the timeframe was great. For 10 days, in parallel there were 6 to 8 projects, each project had around 6 collaborators working on a topic selected by invited artists. So, there I met Andy Gracie, who brought a reeeaaaal and big microscope, and together with a bunch of other artists/architects/hackers we investigated the field of garage astrobiology, for 10 days of intensive experimentation and discussions.

Also, together with Yashas Shetty, we sat together with a few beers, and discussed topics on art-science collaborations in general, the DIYbio movement and other stuff around open-source culture and we thought there is a lack of easy access information for artists that allows them to work with living systems.

Inspired by movements, such as dorkbot, arduino and DIYbio, we then wanted to start a platform, more oriented towards artists and share information on biology, instructions on building labgear at home, and inviting people to write critical essays on these topic of synthetic biology, generic lab infrastuctre, etc. We thought that a lot of the art | sci stuff was too academic and not accessible to the geek artists and at the same time the DIYbio was too geeky and not critical / artistic enough we started the hackteria.org platform to fill the gap.

Jump into the second part of the interview with Marc Dusseiller: Open sourcing with living systems

Du du kuglica sajica mavrica